Two Victorian men who died of coronavirus were cancer patients at The Alfred

The first two Victorians to die of coronavirus were cancer patients in the oncology at The Alfred hospital who were unaware they had COVID-19.

Several staff have since been infected, sparking testing of dozens of medical workers at the hospital amid fears the infection has spread.

The two Victorian men who died from coronavirus were cancer patients in the oncology department at The Alfred hospital.Credit:Wayne Taylor

The Alfred hospital said it was undertaking a full investigation, including contact tracing, to identify the source of transmission, which is still unknown.

The hospital has confirmed all staff at risk of COVID-19 were isolated and tested for the virus. It is understood haematologists were among staff exposed to the virus. The hospital has since restricted access to the oncology ward.

In a statement on Friday afternoon The Alfred hospital expressed its deepest condolences to the men's families.

Alfred Health chief executive Professor Andrew Way said the situation was distressing for the staff, patients and families involved, and a full investigation is underway.

“It is important that we complete the contact tracing to truly understand what has happened, and I appreciate how upsetting this is for everyone involved,” Professor Way said.

“This situation highlights how devastating the virus can be for vulnerable patients. I urge the community to follow health advice and to self-isolate if they’re unwell. We need to act now to protect those at risk in our community.”

The coronavirus outbreak at the one of Melbourne's leading hospital has highlighted the increasing complexity of dealing with the virus, which has already raised unprecedented difficulties for hospitals across Australia.

Hospitals are faced with the uphill challenge of not only protecting their own staff from contracting COVID-19, but of also caring for infected patients and identifying the deadly disease in other patients who may present with other illnesses or who are unaware they have contracted the disease.

It is understood both men were being treated in the hospital for blood cancer before their deaths.

Scientific evidence is increasingly suggests that people with cancer have a significantly higher risk of severe illness resulting in intensive care admissions or death when infected with COVID-19, particularly if they have recently had chemotherapy or surgery.

Blood cancers in particular suppress the immune system, while chemotherapy and medication for any cancer heighten the dangers posed by viruses. Such cancers also affect the bone marrow's ability to produce adequate numbers of healthy blood cells, putting people at far greater risk of infection than the general population.

Research on the impact of coronavirus on cancer patients is limited, however, one study from China found that of 18 COVID-19 cases in people with a history of cancer, almost half had a higher risk of requiring ventilation or of death.

A third man died from coronavirus in Victoria on Thursday, while another three people are fighting for their lives in intensive care.

A total of 574 people in Victoria had been diagnosed with coronavirus as of Friday afternoon, an increase of 54 from Thursday, with 22 people remaining in hospital.

The cases include 332 men and 241 women, with people infected aged from eight to 88.

There are 16 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Victoria that may have been acquired through community transmission.

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